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Women around the world are making excellent wines

If you look at my wine list, maybe 20 percent of my wines are made by women. But of that 20 percent, 90 percent are singular wines."

The wine list referred to here is that of Stage Left: An American Cafe, in New Brunswick, and the speaker is Francis Schott, the restaurant's co-owner. Schott's tribute to women winemakers carries some weight; Stage Left's 500 bottle selection has been recognized by Wine Spectator magazine, the arbiter restaurant wine lists, with its prestigious Award of Excellence. Stage Left certainly has one of the more eclectic and thoughtfully chosen wine lists that I've seen.

So impressed is Schott with the success women winemakers are having that he recently hosted a dinner featuring wines made only by women. Among the highlights of the "Women Winemakers Dinner" was the 1996 Martinelli sauvignon blanc, a concentrated dry white wine. crafted by superstar California vintner Helen Turley. The winery, best-known for its prized zinfandels, also happens to be owned by a woman, Judy Martinelli.

Then there was the 1994 Corison cabernet sauvignon, a beautifully balanced Napa Valley cabernet made by Cathy Corison. For years before starting her own winery, Corison was winemaker at Chappellet, a Napa Valley landmark. Her '94 cab made a sublime accompaniment to lamb.

The dinner culminated with a rich age-mellowed Italian red made by a princess of a winemaker. No joke. She is the Principessa Coralia Pignatelli della Leonessa, and the wine was the 1988 Santacroce, a so-called Super Tuscan blend of sangiovee and cabernet sauvignon.

"She (the princess) will not sell wine--which is an absolute anomaly in the wine business--until she thinks it's ready," Schott explained. "Which is why we have the 1988, the current vintage.

For me, the wine dinner at Stage Left confirmed a hunch I've had for some time: that women have achieved a level of success as winemakers that is way out of proportion to their numbers in the field.

Only a generation ago, winemaking was almost exclusively the business of men. And while women have made progress opening up the profession, they are still a distinct minority. But what they lack in numbers they more than make up for in skill. Consider:

  • In the rarefied world of red Burgundy, a woman named Lalou Bize-Leroy is considered by many to be the No. 1 producer. The assessment of Robert M. Parker Jr., publisher of the influential newsletter The Wine Advocate, is unequivocal: "Lalou Bize-Leroy stands alone at the top of Burgundy's hierarchy." Domaine Leroy's wines sell for as much as $500 a bottle upon release.
  • In France's Alsace region, source of the world's finest dry rieslings, the best come from Domaine Weinbach, operated by Colette Faller and her two daughters, Catherine and Laurence.
  • Then there's Helen Turley, winemaker for several of California's most acclaimed and costly labels, including Martinelli, Marcassin and Turley. She makes what is easily the best California chardonnay I've ever tried, the Marcassin "Gauer Ranch."

"Helen Turley is perhaps the most sought-after winemaker in the world," Schott said. "She accepts nothing less than perfection, and she doesn't care what it costs. Some of her recent releases have sold for $4,000 a case (12 bottles) at auction. Everything she touches turns to gold."

A California winery has a magazine ad that asks, "Do women make better winemakers?" (The winery is Laurier, where the winemaker is Merry Edwards.) I'm inclined to think they do.

Why this would be is not easily explained. Of the women winemakers I've talked to, some claim women are born with a heightened sense of smell. Others suggest their success is due to the fact that they have to work harder than their male colleagues.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is indisputable: The top women winemakers have achieved near-cult status among collectors, pushing prices absurdly high and making the wines all but impossible to find.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. At Buena Vista Winery, in California's Carneros district, vineyard director Anne Moller-Racke and winemaker Judy Matulich-Weitz turn out consistently good values in chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. The Buena Vista label, one of California's oldest, is widely available in New Jersey.

And an alumna of Buena Vista, Jill Davis, is in the process of reviving the William Hill Winery. Davis left Buena Vista for William Hill in 1994 and, in just a few years, has re-established the label's prominence among Napa Valley cabernets and chardonnays.

While William Hill's reputation was established by its reserve wines, the better values are the regular bottlings, particularly the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. The 1996 chardonnay, with a suggested retail price of $14.50, has elements of tropical fruit and the sweetness of oak aging, just like many full-blown California chardonnays.

The 1995 cabernet ($16) is similarly understated. Bright-flavored berry fruit and a touch of mint characteristic of some Napa cabs are accompanied by soft tannins, giving the wine a silky texture. The word here is elegant, not powerful, which makes it especially adept at the table. Try it, as I did, with sliced steak and sauteed mushrooms.

Where to find it:

The William Hill label is distributed in New Jersey by R & R Marketing, of West Caldwell. If it's not stock, any wine shop or liquor store should be able to order it for you.

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